Contradictory findings on the relationship between hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA)-axis activity and externalizing behavior problems could be due to studies not accounting for issues of comorbidity and gender. In a population-based cohort of 1768 (10- to 12-year-old) early adolescents, we used a person-oriented approach and a variable-oriented approach to investigate whether comorbidity with internalizing behavior problems and gender moderate the relationship between HPA-axis activity (cortisol awakening response and evening cortisol levels) and externalizing behavior problems. We found that: (1) in early adolescents with pure externalizing behavior problems, there was a particularly strong effect of gender, in that girls showed significantly higher total cortisol levels after awakening (AUC(G) levels) and a significantly higher cortisol awakening response (AUC(I) levels) than boys. (2) Girls with pure externalizing behavior problems showed a significantly higher cortisol awakening response (AUC(I) levels) than girls without behavior problems or girls with comorbid internalizing behavior problems. This effect was absent in boys. (3) Externalizing behavior problems, in contrast to internalizing behavior problems, were associated with higher evening cortisol levels. This effect might, however, result from girls with externalizing behavior problems showing the highest evening cortisol levels. Overall, we were unable to find the expected relationships between comorbidity and HPA-axis activity, and found girls with pure externalizing behavior problems to form a distinct group with regard to their HPA-axis activity. There is need for prospective longitudinal studies of externalizing behavior problems in boys and girls in relation to their HPA-axis activity. It would be useful to consider how other risk factors such as life events and family and parenting factors as well as genetic risks affect the complex relationship between externalizing behavior problems and HPA-axis activity
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